Participatory Budgeting: What Do Citizens Want?

Ileana Steccolini, Member, CIPFA Faculty Board, Professor of Accounting and Finance & Research Director, Newcastle University London and Maria Francesca Sicilia, Professor of Accounting and Finance & Research Director, Newcastle University London | November 20, 2017 |


Since its birth in Porto Alegre, participatory budgeting, that is, the process through which citizens are actively involved in allocating a portion of budgetary resources, has attracted increased attention worldwide. It has been heralded as a possible answer to the current public finances crisis, the shortfall in public administration legitimacy, the loss of trust in representative democracies, and the need to foster local development and growth.

But under which conditions can participatory budgeting work? What do citizens want when participating in budgeting decisions?

According to a recent review of public budgeting, more needs to be uncovered and understood about participatory budgeting, and what citizens expect. The process remains largely unexplored.

We recently investigated how Italian citizens perceive participatory budgeting and the way in which it is implemented. We found four typologies of citizens being involved in participatory budgeting. First is the supporter in theory, but doubtful in practice, who think that participatory budgeting has significant potential for ensuring stronger involvement of citizens and collaboration among stakeholders, but point to the risks that the participatory process may become controlled by elites.

Second are the citizens who appear to be particularly worried about the trade-off between consensus and creativity, as they are see the risk of politicization of participatory budgeting and that the need for consensus may even “crowd-out” energies devoted to creating and designing projects. Third are the supporters of a community approach, who recognize the importance of  balance between more targeted and collective needs in budgeting decisions, and pervasive information sharing and transparency. The fourth group are those who are aware of citizens’ importance and strongly focusing on the role of citizens as enablers and recipients of participatory budgeting with a central role in differentiating resource allocation amongst different actors and types of projects.

All in all, it appears that the successful implementation of participatory budgeting depends on four central factors: responsiveness, representation, interaction, and inclusiveness.

Responsiveness concerns continuous attention to citizens’ needs and the capacity to use the participatory budgeting process to identify and respond not only to parochial needs but also to the collective needs. The development of a broader awareness and better understanding of the collective needs is not easy and requires time.

Representation refers to the extent to which different interests, views, and power positions have voice in the process and requires that decisions on how to spend public money are made mainly through open debates. This ensures that voice and views are expressed, and reduces conflict, while selecting and compromising on possible solutions.

Interaction refers to establishing a continuous two-way channel of communication between public administrators and citizens that is adjusted over time.

Finally, inclusiveness is needed for achieving democracy and for guaranteeing a more equal allocation of resources. The municipality is responsible for removing the barriers to citizens participation by making the process more open, facilitating the collection of information from the various stakeholders (e.g., associations, specific interest groups, citizens), increasing the transparency of the process at each stage and ensuring broader access in terms, for example, of linguistic mediation and physical access.


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